When New York-born and bred Ajaita Shah graduated from college, she wanted to bridge the gap in diplomacy between India, where her roots lay, and the United States. “I soon realised that I didn’t know much about India’s core. I realised that in order to understand India and help her grow, it was important to understand the heart of India, or rural India. I was introduced to microfinance while still in college and fell in love with the idea of working in rural India to help the heartland of the country.
“I started working in microfinance as soon as I graduated from college, and spent the next five years living and working in India and spending time in villages, understanding hardships. I lived in villages when there was no electricity, and I understood the dangers of kerosene lanterns burning children and villages. If I was going to help India really take things forward, it would be through changing the electricity challenge. I also believed it was a big business opportunity. Working in microfinance, I have learned the balance of sustainable business and social impact. With my family background of entrepreneurship and desire for social change, I believed this was the best combination.”
Ajaita’s parents migrated from Jaipur, Rajasthan, to build a Jain community of jewellers in NYC. She grew up in Westchester where she excelled in honours classes, international studies, sports, music, dancing and karate. She then went to school at Tufts University in Boston, which believed in learning by doing. “I joined very intense international relations classes and had the opportunity to study abroad, work in research, in government, and really open the opportunities to understand what it means to be a global citizen. Through university, I travelled all over the world. I was inspired by my grandfathers and my parents; they have encouraged me to be the best I can be—I have understood the importance of business and service ever since I was a child. My first two bosses were microfinance CEOs who also inspired me to work in this sector; they taught me a lot about what it means to be a leader, to make tough decisions, to work in India, and most importantly, become pioneers of social businesses.”
Ajaita first worked on energy projects through microfinance and realised the challenges in the business model, so finally had the courage to start her own company, Frontier Markets. “Frontier Markets (FM) is a last-mile sales, marketing and after-sales service distribution company bringing clean energy solutions to rural India. We believe that every household has a right to reliable, affordable, and high quality energy services. Since 2011, FM has built last mile distribution by partnering with rural retail points and by building service centres to increase access to solar lighting, clean cooking and renewable energy power solutions. Currently, FM is working in 12 districts of Rajasthan and till date, we have partnered with 800 retail points branded as Saral Jeevan Sahayogis, or ‘Easy Life Partners’, trained 250 women in renewable energy marketing and customer service to become ‘Solar Sahelis’, have sold 130,000 solar and clean cooking solutions with a team of 35 people on the ground. Our aim is to alleviate 1 million households’ challenges with electricity inequity by 2019 working in three states of India.”
“In India, 70 million rural households use kerosene lanterns and battery torches; 405 million households have some electricity, albeit unreliable and inefficient, to power their appliances for several hours.” There are barriers though, she admits. “While solar seemed like an obvious, scalable solution, lack of awareness and distrust in solar products were major barriers to adoption. Moreover, local populations were neither involved nor motivated to find a solution.”
Ajaita hopes to become a visionary for sustainable energy for all, and to create global impact in this sector. She hopes to inspire others to get involved. “By 2020, FM will have 5,000 retail points, 5,000 women work force (Solar Sahelis), reach one million households, and have a presence in three Indian states.”